My name is Paul Offit. I’m the chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and my published expertise is in the area of vaccine safety and rotavirus-specific immune responses. (I’m the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq). I’ve written a book about the vaccine-autism controversy titled AUTISM’S FALSE PROPHETS: BAD SCIENCE, RISKY MEDICINE, AND THE SEARCH FOR A CURE. First: a little background on autism and the birth of the controversy.
There is no known cause or cure for autism. But in the late 1990s two hypotheses garnered a great deal of media attention. The first, advanced by a gastroenterologist in London, posited that the combination measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) caused autism. The second, advanced by parent advocacy groups in the United States, argued that thimerosal, an ethylmercury-containing preservative that had been used in vaccines since the 1930s, was responsible. The notion that vaccines caused autism wasn’t surprising; vaccines have often been blamed for chronic disorders such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and mental retardation.
In response to the concern that vaccines caused autism, the public health and academic communities responded, performing a series of large, carefully controlled, epidemiological studies. Ten separate groups of investigators found no link between MMR and autism and six groups found no link between thimerosal and autism. Because of the strength, consistency, and reproducibility of these studies, the notion that MMR or thimerosal cause autism is no longer a scientific controversy.
The reason that I wrote the book is because of what happened after the studies exonerating vaccines had been performed and published. The media, using the journalistic mantra of balance, continued to cover the story as if it were a controversy. But the controversy is between those who believe in science as a way to answer scientific questions and those who don’t. The “vaccine-autism controversy” is really an anti-science story. Science is viewed by many in the media as just one more opinion in a sea of opinions.
The continued portrayal by the press that vaccines might cause autism has done a lot of harm. Harm because many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, witness the recent measles epidemic in the United States, the largest in more than a decade. Harm because the false notion that vaccines cause autism has caused parents to choose dangerous therapies, such as chelation. And harm because the notion that vaccines might be the problem continues to divert resources away from far more promising leads. My hope for this book is that people confused about this subject will see the sand on which the notion that vaccines cause autism is built. And also get a better look at the motivations of the fringe scientists, lawyers, journalists, and parent advocates who continue to flak for the irresponsible notion that vaccines cause autism.