The debate about vaccinations and autism

By Drum Digital
12 April 2014

The debate surrounding the MMR vaccination and autism flared up on Facebook again recently – but what does the medical profession say about it?

When well-known British medical journal The Lancet first published a now notorious article by former doctor and researcher Andrew Wakefield (no longer in a medical role) in 1998, it caused a controversy which has resurfaced again and again – especially on social networks. Is it true that the MMR vaccination, meant to protect children against measles, rubella and mumps, can cause autism? Many mothers -- especially those with autism in their families – still wonder about these claims.

In the UK, many mothers have stopped having their kids vaccinated, especially after Jim Carrey’s wife Jenny McCarthy alleged the vaccination had given her son autism – and this despite the fact The Lancet withdrew the article in 2010. In addition, 10 of the 12 authors distanced themselves from the piece, and in 2000 The Lancet itself published an article pointing out the holes in Wakefield’s research.

Earlier this year the Council on Foreign Relations in America published a world map showing where measles epidemics had broken out. On the map you can, for instance, see that there were large measles epidemics in South Africa in 2009 and 2010 – about 12 years after Wakefield had published his article. In the rest of Africa, all classified as Third World or developing countries, measles is extremely common.

According to an article in The LA Times shortly after the map was issued, this was to be expected because the vaccination wasn’t so readily available in these countries. What was really shocking, however, was how many measles epidemics there had been in Europe, and especially Britain. For countries like the UK, which rank among the richest and most advanced nations in the world, such an epidemic is entirely preventable.

But why is it so important to have your child inoculated?

According to Sister Desiree du Plessis, a nurse at one of Netcare’s Stork’s Nest clinics, it’s important that moms have their babies inoculated so that the “herd protection” will kick in. “If about 80 per cent of the population’s children are inoculated the herd protection will kick in, which means the chance of other children (who haven’t been inoculated) contracting the disease is much lower,” she says.

But if too few children have been inoculated the results can be catastrophic. In 1592 about two thirds of Cuba’s population were wiped out by a measles epidemic.

Measles is a dangerous disease, even if you don’t die of it. “It can cause ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhoea and blindness in children. It’s particularly dangerous for pregnant mothers because it can affect the unborn baby,” says Sister du Plessis.

What if you’re really afraid of autism?

She says she doesn’t often come across moms who don’t want their children inoculated because she deals mostly with children who have been referred by paediatricians. But if moms say they’re worried she recommends that the inoculation not be done at 15 months, but rather at two years. If the child is autistic the symptoms will probably have begun to show by then.

“I can say with certainty there’s no medical evidence of a connection between autism and the MMR inoculation,” she adds.

When should your child be inoculated?

According to the inoculation schedule of Stork’s Nest, a Netcare health clinic for moms and babies, the first inoculation for measles is done at nine months and the second one at 15 months. The inoculation at nine months is only for measles and the one at 15 months is the MMR inoculation for measles, mumps and rubella.

Symptoms of measles

- Runny nose

- Dry cough

- Red, swollen eyes

- Wateryness in the eyes

- A sensitivity to light

- Fever

- Koplik spots – small, grey white lumps with white in the middle

- Body pain

- Skin rash – three to four days after the first symptoms a red-brown rash of lumps shows on the skin. It may last for up to a week. It usually begine behind the ears.

Herd protection – what is it?

Herd protection refers to the theory that if a large number of people are inoculated against an infectious disease the chances are lower that an uninoculated individual will come into contact with the disease. So, even though there is a degree of this sort of immunity in SA your child can still catch measles if he’s not inoculated – the chances are just reduced.

- Dalena Theron

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