In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the Lancet describing eight children who developed signs and symptoms of autism within one month of receiving the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. As a consequence of this publication, many parents believed that vaccines had caused their child’s autism. In response, 18 studies — performed in seven countries on three continents involving hundreds of thousands of children — have shown that children who received the MMR vaccine are not more likely to develop autism than those who never received that vaccine. Further, after an investigation found that Wakefield had misrepresented clinical and biological data, the Lancet withdrew the paper. Wakefield subsequently lost his license to practice medicine.

So, what do parents think now? Do most parents of children with autism still believe that the MMR vaccine, or any vaccine, was the cause?

Recently, researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University and Baylor College of Medicine tried to answer these questions (Fombonne E, Goin-Kochel RP, O’Roak BJ, SPARK Consortium. Beliefs in vaccines as a cause of autism among SPARK cohort caregivers. Vaccine. 2020 Feb 11;38(7):1794-1803). In a questionnaire given to 16,525 caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorders, investigators found that only 16.5% believed that vaccines were the cause. Those who held this belief were more likely to be from an ethnic minority, be less wealthy, have less education, and have children whose autism was diagnosed earlier.

The authors concluded, “One in six caregivers who participated in a national research cohort believe that child immunizations could be a cause of autism in their child … index caregivers who are more likely to harbor these beliefs could benefit from targeted educational activities.”

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