Talk to Patients About: The Autism Myth
By Sean Price Texas Medicine November 2019

Nov_19_TM_VaccinesQAIt’s hard to find a medical myth that’s been more thoroughly debunked than the notion that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism.

“There have been … over 25 published studies evaluating millions of children who have received MMR, and none of the studies found a causal link between MMR and autism,” said Jennifer Shuford, MD, infectious disease medical officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). “So there’s no scientific evidence that links those two things.”

But this mountain of evidence doesn’t stop anti-vaccine advocates from recycling this myth, which dates back to 1998, when British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield coauthored a study in the Lancet claiming to have found a link between MMR and autism. But Dr. Wakefield’s research was, as the British Medical Journal later put it, an “elaborate fraud.”

Dr. Wakefield deliberately skewed his research results, abused the children he was studying, and hid his financial reasons for drawing a false connection between MMR and autism, the BMJ concluded. In 2010, the Lancet formally retracted the paper, and Dr. Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Wakefield, who now lives in Austin, still appears at anti-vaccine events. The lie he started has contributed to the drop in vaccination rates in the U.S. and Europe. As a result, measles, which had been declared eliminated here in 2000, came roaring back in 2019.

Texas has seen 21 measles cases as of September, but infectious disease experts say a much larger number of cases is almost inevitable. In 2003, Texas began letting parents refuse vaccines for their school-age children for reasons of conscience. Since then, exemptions have soared more than 2,000%, to 64,176 statewide.

The state’s exemption rate is 1.2%, which is below the roughly 5% threshold for preserving herd immunity with measles. But 69 private K-12 schools have exemption rates in double digits, according to DSHS. And there are other hotspots.

As of September, El Paso County was the only Texas county to have a measles outbreak – defined as three or more related cases. (See “Keeping Outbreaks at Bay,” page 40.) But three other Texas counties – Harris, Tarrant, and Travis – were ranked in the top 25 counties nationwide considered most likely to see a measles outbreak, according to a May 2019 study by The University of Texas at Austin and Johns Hopkins University.

Tex Med. 2019;115(11):47 
November 2019 Texas Medicine 
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Last Updated On

November 04, 2019

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Sean Price

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Sean Price is a reporter for Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He's worked as an award-winning writer and editor for a variety of national magazine, book, and website publishers in New York and Washington. He's also helped produce Texas-based marketing campaigns designed to promote public health. Sean lives in Austin and enjoys hiking, photography, and spending time with his wife and two sons.

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