There’s a rising concern about the potential association between vaccination and autism. Although this correlation has never been confirmed by sufficient clinical evidence, it is a fact that vaccines are neither completely safe nor completely effective. In the past, many believed that mercury contained in vaccine formulations was to be deemed responsible for potential cases of autism in vaccinated babies. However, this potentially harmful metal has been removed from vaccines a long time ago. Very recent studies found a positive and statistically significant relationship between autism prevalence and childhood vaccination uptake (1).
The false association between autism and vaccines
Much of the alleged evidence that pointed towards an association between vaccines and autism is now known to be the product of a possible story of personal corruption. Dr. Andrew Wakefield, MD, the lead author of the infamous article published in the science journal The Lancet in 1998 that found that link, was, in fact, paid to write the article by lawyers who wished to file lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. His research was eventually found to be fatally flawed by the former editor of The Lancet Dr. Richard Horton, who later formally retracted the articled. In 2010, Wakefield was also banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.
The first and most important thing to remember is that vaccines inoculation has been so far the most effective method to eradicate many contagious diseases that claimed million of lives in the past centuries. The mass hysteria surrounding the risk of autism is leading causing an increasingly amount of people to stop vaccinating their newborns. This irrational behavior does more than just exposing one own’s children to an unmotivated risk of infection, but may also have significant social consequences since herd immunity is not reached. The spread of a disease can be, in fact, slowed or stopped by disrupting its chain of infection only when a large number of individuals in a population are immune (2). So even if a potential risk of autism actually exists, infant vaccination is always recommended, because the damage an epidemic may cause to the entire society is substantially more dangerous.
The unsettling rulings of the Italian courts
On September 23, 2014, the Italian tribunal of Milan decided to compensate to a boy for the damage caused by a vaccine, that was deemed responsible for his autism syndrome (3). The tribunal decision explains that due to the high aluminum and mercury content of the vaccine, and the increase in toxicity of these metals caused by the presence of Polysorbate 80, the kid suffered from permanent brain damage. The baby was administered in 2006 three doses of a vaccine called Infanrix Hexa, a hexavalent vaccine manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry GlaxoSmithKline that should protect him from polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, pertussis and Haemophilus influenza type B. One of the components of the formulation was a preservative called thimerosal, that contains aluminum, mercury and polysorbate 80. A few years later, on 2010 the baby regressed into autism. The court presided by Judge Nicola Di Leo has then banned the use of thimerosal in vaccines because of its neurotoxicity as it was found to be present “in concentrations greatly exceeding the maximum recommended levels for infants weighing only a few kilograms.”
The most horrifying discovery though, was that GlaxoSmithKline already knew that their vaccine could harm the babies that were injected with it. In a 1271-page confidential report, the pharmaceutical industry described in detail how they had ample evidence of adverse events from the vaccine. Caring only for profits, they did not disclose to the public the fact that during the medication clinical trials, five known cases of autism resulted from the vaccine’s administration (4). The neurotoxicity of this ingredient will probably cause autistic syndrome only to genetically predisposed individuals, but given the fact that vaccines are either compulsory or recommended, the Italian government has introduced a national compensation program to give financial support to families that suffered from vaccine injuries. Sadly, it’s government with taxpayer’s money that will compensate and help parents whose children must endure autism, not the same Big Pharma that caused the damage in the first place.
The Milan’s case is not the only Italian court decision against vaccines, though. On May 23, 2012, the court of Rimini presided by Judge Lucio Ardigo found that another vaccine had caused autism in a child (5). This time, it was the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine (MMR), that immediately caused bowel and eating disorders in the kid just after his vaccination on March 26, 2004. After less than a year, the boy received an autism diagnosis.
In both Milan and Rimini’s cases though, the Ministry of Health originally prevented the families from taking part in the vaccination injury program. When they appealed the court, however, and presented new medical evidence, the judges proved to be reasonable and provided them with a compensation.
Although the Italian press gave ample space to both these two cases, In the US very few media outlets talked about them. In all US proceedings that tried to link autism with vaccinations in autism, no proof was ever found to confirm this association, and no compensation was ever given to the families that asked to take part in the US Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The decisions took by the Italian tribunals tough, suggest that maybe the US courts were wrong, and that a new, more impartial review of all these cases could be necessary. Even if vaccination by itself is not responsible for these cases, maybe the pharmaceutical companies that produce these substances may be responsible for their unexpected side effects. Any form of stricter control can thus only have beneficial effects on our society by rebuilding some of the trust people lost in this important form of preventive treatment.
1. Delong G. A positive association found between autism prevalence and childhood vaccination uptake across the U.S. population. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2011;74(14):903-16. doi: 10.1080/15287394.2011.573736.
2. Fine, P.; Eames, K.; Heymann, D. L. (1 April 2011). “”Herd immunity”: A rough guide”. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 52 (7): 911–6. doi:10.1093/cid/cir007. PMID 21427399.
3. GlaxoSmithKline Confidential Report (Retrieved October 2015)
4. Sentenza n. 2014/217 del Tribunale di Rimini (Retrieved October 2015)