Vaccination Controversy: Can Vaccines Cause Autism in Children?

Heated debates about the safety of vaccines are being constantly fueled as the epidemic of ADHD is raging in the U.S. Everyone is pointing the finger at various possible culprits, and vaccines remain the most widely blamed suspect. Is there any science-based link between vaccines and the disorder?

Image Credit: / Dmitry Naumov

In the quest for identifying the mechanisms behind the development of ADHD, people have looked into a wide range of factors which may be contributors to the risk. What makes everyone want to spur the research in the field is the alarmingly growing rates of ADHD prevalence: according to the CDC, one in 59 children suffers from an autism spectrum disorder. In 2000, the prevalence was 1 in 150.

As more children are being affected by the debilitating disease, parents are struggling to find the truth. Some blame water fluoridation (with some recent scientific evidence supporting the claim), others cannot help but see a link between vaccination and ADHD.

There are many substances in vaccines that are usually named as possible offenders. In 1998, when the whole polemics began, it was MMR as a whole; later, it was thimerosal – a substance not present in MMR but containing mercury. Other possible explanations include aluminum adjuvants (a lengthy and reference-rich piece of writing on the matter is available here and can serve as a good example of the scale of the debate and the rhetoric involved). None have been officially called a possible cause of autism.

What’s the problem with vaccines?

As of this moment, it remains unclear whether there is a link between the disorder in question and protecting children against life-threatening diseases. The problem is that many parents see an association between vaccination and becoming autistic. Anecdotal evidence is backed by several papers finding links between some substance from vaccines, inflammation, and autism, but the overview of dozens of these papers showed no link.

However, an even bigger problem is that there are too many scientific lacunae left to be filled. The researches looking into the effects of MMR and thiomersal found no link, but there remain other possible ways vaccines could potentially be dangerous.

Take aluminum, for instance. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that it can contribute to inflammation in the body, including the brain. It is not that difficult to piece it all together and point the finger at aluminum – after all, given how numerous the papers finding links between aluminum, inflammation and autism are, it sounds reasonable. Still, the jury is still out on it, as there are arguments which are at odds with the theory.

The thing is, while infants usually receive around 4.4 mg of the metal by the time they reach the age of 18 months, the amount of aluminum they consume through other sources is greater. Those mothers who practice breastfeeding provide their babies with 7 mg of aluminum through their milk. Formula-fed babies ingest much more – around 38 mg. Soy formulas increase the number to as much as 117 mg. All these numbers are for the first 6 months, not 18. This data shows that the amounts of aluminum, which can induce inflammation, in vaccines are not as significant as the amounts received from other sources.

Barking up the wrong tree

Blaming vaccines could really be very dangerous, as they are not used for nothing: vaccination helped fight off many life-threatening diseases, and the very fact that they contain a substance with possible side effects does not make it the culprit. Yes, aluminum could be to blame – but the source of it does not necessarily has to be vaccines. As of this moment, there is no scientific overview that would support the theory that vaccines are linked to autism. The need for more research is evident, and as there remain a lot of research gaps, it is wiser to stick to vaccination in order to try to prevent serious diseases, which had used to take thousand of life before vaccines were introduced.

Given how contaminated the food we and our children eat is, it is also reasonable to look into the issue of food contamination. Mercury, lead and other heavy metals are present in baby foods, and in some of them they are found in large amounts.

There are a lot of things we do not know, even if we pretend to know it all. Autism is one of these mysteries, and today we do not have enough data to blame vaccines.

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