Autism and vaccinations: The myth of contracting autism


Last week, I was writing a response to a reporter from an online media and I wanted to share my perspective with you as a mother and a mental health professional. The reporter was asking:“Should pediatricians advise parents against interacting with other children, who are not vaccinated? What’s reasonable?” I think the question is two-fold:

1) As parents, we have a responsibility to the community
On the one hand, as parents, we have a responsibility to ensure our children’s health and safety, which in turn ensures the health and safety of all other children we expose them to. Regardless of whether or not we choose to vaccinate our child, it is our responsibility as parents to protect others in the community if our kid gets sick or even before they get sick. This is especially important if we choose to go against doctor’s recommendations and not vaccinate. 

I think it is unreasonable to expect physicians to do all the work and to take the responsibility out of the hands of the direct care provider.2) Why do parents choose not to vaccinate?
On the other hand, I think that as a community, we need to understand why parents choose not to vaccinate and try our best to educate them on the benefits of vaccinations as well as the risks. It seems to me, however, that we cannot only rely on the pediatricians’ authority to do the educating. Why do I say that? I say it, because what seems to be very clear to me is that there is a lack of trust in what the doctors are saying to parents. We hear the message loud and clear that vaccinations are safe, beneficial and necessary to protect our children but somehow that message is trumped by something else. What is it? How come parents are neglecting what pediatricians are saying over and over again about the safety and necessity of vaccinations?

So, the real question we need to be asking is why do parents choose not to vaccinate their children? What are they afraid of? Once we’ve answered that question, then we can begin to address it. I think the answer is complicated and this is as much personal as it is a social issue. It seems to me, however, that what this something else is is the fear of autism and the lack of trust in the medical research. Some parents are still afraid that their child is going to become autistic if they vaccinate them, which seems to be a higher risk to take than contracting measles, mumps or rubella. 

The myth about contracting autism
Some of you may already know this but what brought up this fear initially was a study published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the British journal “The Lancet” in 1998, linking autism to the MMR vaccine. Two years later, the journal officially retracted the paper and stated that it had no scientific merit. Another study on the current evidence about autism and vaccinations in the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing from 2009 concludes that “rigorous scientific studies have not identified links between autism and either thimerosal-containing vaccine or the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.” Ample papers have confirmed the same findings so the research is indisputable that autism is not caused by MMR vaccinations.

Still, mental health professionals and pediatricians have a responsibility to educate the public and to alleviate the fear of contracting autism through vaccination. How do we do that? Well, I think we can start by building trust with the parents and families we serve. Show them that we care, show them that we understand where they are coming from and reassure them that we will be there for them and their children. If the parents trust their doctor, they trust their pediatrician or mental health provider, they are more likely to follow their recommendations.

The solution?
I think we need to focus on 1) building trust and educating families and 2) supporting those families, who do have an autistic child at home and who need to navigate the mental health system to find services for them. If we are able to raise awareness, share the real stories of families with autistic children and dismantle the myth of autism contracted through vaccinations, we may see a light in the tunnel. Because the stories of those real families speak so much louder than the papers published in medical journals or the impersonal recommendations of the experts on television or other media. 

So, do you have a personal experience with children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder? Help me raise awareness and share your story today! You can either comment to this post or email me.

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