If a child develops autism soon after having a vaccine, itsunlikely to
be pure coincidence, writes Dr James Le Fanu
(Sunday Telegraph Magazine 12 April 1998)
Six weeks ago, Dr Andrew Wakefield of the Royal Free Hospital in London reported a possible link between the childhood MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism, the serious psychological syndrome which causes children to have great difficulty in communicating with those around them. The official response was - Clinton-style - to deny everything: "There is no evidence that the MMR vaccine carries the risks suggested," said Dr Jeremy Metters, deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health.
This view was endorsed by editorials in both of Britain's leading medical journals. "The hypothesis rests on clinical anecdote [that is, Dr Wakefield's description of 12 cases] rather than an epidemiologically sound base (statistics]," observed Dr Angus Nicoll in the British Medical Journal, adding, "Chance alone dictates that some cases [of autism] will appear shortly after vaccination."
So that's it then. Dr Wakefield's "possible link" is just coincidence. Every year, 600,000 children are given the MMR vaccine and the few who are diagnosed as having autism would have had it anyhow. I don't believe this theory. But I must confess to a personal interest in the matter ever since the 1 8-month-old daughter of friends of mine stopped talking soon after her MMR vaccination.
The girl was, in her mother's words, "the happiest, easiest baby in the world", who had sailed through her developmental milestones even more easily than her older brother. Then, within days of being given the MMR vaccine - which itself had been uneventfull - things started to go wrong. No longer did she ask at the end of meals, "Please may I get down?" as she had been taught by her parents. The evening ritual of reciting the names of the Beatrix Potter characters around her bed - Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Mrs Tiggywinkle and so forth - ceased. Within a few weeks her -vocabulary was virtually zero, which naturally caused her enormous frustration leading to the sort of behavioural problems one might expect from a child of her age who was no longer able to express herself. This happened three years ago, long before anyone had suggested a link with the vaccine, but it seemed to both parents that if there was a precipitant cause, the vaccine must be it.
And yet, as they did the rounds of the family doctor, numerous specialists and educationalists, no one offered any alternative explanation - or indeed, any explanation at all. They were given the impression that the sudden onset of autism is just one of those things that can happen. But this loss of the ability to talk does not just "happen"; it is both very unusual and quite different from the communication difficulties typical of autism, which are invariably present from birth, though the diagnosis may not be made until the child is one or two. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter.
This is not "typical" autism but an entirely new syndrome of "regressive" autism where previously normal children go backwards in behaviour, losing their already acquired communication skills. The uniqueness of this new syndrome and its close temporal relation to the MMR sttongly implicates the vaccine as a cause.
So obvious is this that one can only infer that something fishy is going on, for which I would suggest the following explanation. We live in a world where, thank God, the blight of the lethal or paralytic childhood diseases - polio, diphtheria, tetanus and so on - have, thanks to vaccination, been eliminated. Child health experts have, therefore, in recent years turned their attention to milder illnesses such as measles, hoping to repeat the earlier achievement by eliminating them as well. The problem has been convincing parents of the need for vaccination, which has meant talking up the potential danger of these illnesses along the lines of "measles can kill", even though in this country such complications are very rare. Now the experts, having first exaggerated the danger of these illnesses, have no alternative other than to minimise or dismiss any suggestions that immunisation might be harmful. In the past few months, my friends' daughter has finally started to talk again and, now that she can communicate better, her behavioural problems have improved. It is too early to say whether her recovery will be complete, but in the meantime, it is scarcely surprising that parents should have so little confidence in the opinion of the experts.